On the surface it would appear that the 2011 Mississippi State football season was a success, but not if you listen to coach Dan Mullen as he prepares to go into his fourth season at the helm of the Bulldogs.
“Even though we made it to a bowl game and won a bowl game, and have won three straight Egg Bowls, nobody is patting anybody on the back around here, which happened last offseason,” Mullen told Brandon Marcello of Lindys this spring.
“So I think there is a little more edge to our guys and they want to take that next step forward.”
Coming off a 9-4 record in 2010, the Bulldogs slipped to 7-6 last season, although it did conclude on a positive note with wins over Ole Miss in the tradition season-ending rivalry game and a Music City Bowl victory over Wake Forest.
Now, according to Mullen, the Bulldogs want to compete with the elite teams in the West, which will mean compete for an SEC Championship. So far this fall, the coach thinks they are off to a good start health-wise and depth-wise.
“If we’re 100 percent healthy, I feel good about it,” Mullen said. “The problem is we do have some depth, but with some of the youth that’s there it does make you nervous. I’d love the youth to be in a backup role this year instead of being forced into a starting role.”
He’s also seen encouraging signs out of his teams in the past three years when competing against Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Arkansas in the division.
“I mean, we’ve had the opportunity to beat every one of those teams, right down to the fourth quarter, last plays of the game,” he said. “The big difference for us is we have to make those game-winning plays. We have to have guys step up and make those game-winning plays. I think three of those teams have won the national championship.”
One of the players Mullen expects to step up and help make those program-changing plays is a 5-foot-11, 200-pound senior wide receiver from Tupelo by the name of Chad Bumphis. He has been making those plays since his freshman season in 2009, when he was named to the All-SEC Freshman team by the league’s coaches.
Bumphis has caught 101 passes for 1,351 yards and 12 touchdowns in his three seasons, although he considers the 2011 season a disappointment after he logged 25 catches for 339 yards and three touchdowns. He is tied for sixth in school history in touchdowns and eighth in receptions, the Bumphis is only 43 yards away from entering the top 10 list in career receiving yardage.
The numbers were down from his outstanding 2010 season when he caught 44 passes for 634 yards and five scores and led State in receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, punt returns, punt return yardage and all-purpose yards.
With the added emphasis on the passing game for 2012, Mullen believes Bumphis will step up and become a team leader but he is not going to have to shoulder the role alone.
“At different times it’s different guys,” Mullen said. “Chad’s very conscientious as a guy that wants to play his best football his senior year. He and I have talked several times and it’s really important for him to do that this season.”
Bumphis’ biggest concern for a bounce-back season is just what he can do to help the Bulldogs win, a subject he always brings up in talks with Mullen. The wide receiver is taking to offensive coordinator Les Koenning’s throw-it-all-over-the-field approach for this season. In fact, all Bulldogs receivers — Bumphis, Joe Morrow, Chris Smith and Arceto Clark — are excited about it as are Bulldog quarterbacks Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott.
“We’re flinging the ball around,” Koenning said at the end of spring drills.
State had a relatively soft early schedule that could launch a 6-1 or 7-0 start if the Bulldogs can win a Sept. 8 home game with Auburn. But as always, State’s closing stretch will be brutal with road games at Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss with home games against Texas A&M and Arkansas down the stretch.
That’s why a fast start is so important if the Bulldogs are going to achieve their goal of playing with the elite teams in the SEC West.
Around the SEC:
Injuries were the biggest news at a couple of stops around the league over the weekend.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier confirmed that freshman cornerback Rico McWilliams is out for the season. “Rico probably will have to have surgery, so it looks like he will be out this year. It’s an unfortunate injury, but no way we could have prevented that. Just two guys running down the field and he accidentally stepped on Shaq (Roland) a little bit and twisted his knee up real good.”
At Ole Miss, the Rebels were felled by two injuries after Sunday practices. Junior defensive back Charles Sawyer has a torn quadriceps muscle and will be out for at least a month. The 5-11, 175-pounder had 70 tackles and led Ole Miss with four interceptions as a sophomore. Sophomore receiver Collins Moore tore a labrum and will try to play through the pain instead of undergoing season-ending surgery. Philander Moore, Korvic Neat and Tobias Singleton are expected to help replace by Moore.